I was attending a school committee meeting on racism led by the Superintendent and attended mostly by school personnel. The focus shifted from racial disparities in the school, to a discussion of the need to accept all cultures. I was uncomfortable with this shift away from topic. I had seen this shift many times before in other contexts. It feels easier to talk about cultural differences than about systemic inequities. Should I say something? I did not work in the school and was invited as a parent and community member. I debated what to do and ultimately I felt it was my responsibility to speak up, so I took a deep breath. Surely my years studying and teaching about social justice had provided me with the tools to handle this.
I said, “I notice the conversation has shifted away from racism. I feel we are missing the chance to look at power inequities and discrimination.” Luckily several people agreed with me, and we were able to come back to topic.
Frequently, my workshop participants have told me that what we discuss helps them initiate conversations about racial and social justice issues in the workplace and with friends. In addition, they gain more awareness and skills to address inequities in their organizations or communities. In these educational sessions, participants are often able to have authentic communication with other human beings across race or culture that are hard to have in other contexts. It provides a sense of possibility of what we can achieve more widely.
People often ask how I became interested in social justice. It was not from a particular experience or relationship. I have long felt a deep inner calling to correct social injustices whether I was a recipient of the oppression (e.g., as a female with sexism) or in the dominant group (e.g. as a white person with racism.) In college, I majored in education and psychology with a bent towards feminism. In graduate school (at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst), I pursued a Masters and then a Doctorate focused on counseling and Social Justice Education. This program gave me the resources to start my career and to concentrate my life on educating others about social justice.
Now, for over 30 years, I have been giving talks, consulting, teaching, and facilitating workshops with a variety of organizations and groups from New York to California and even in Japan. I have partnered with Focusing international to offer workshops for white people wanting to “Do Our Own Work: Unlearning Racism and Fostering Racial Justice” as well as for multiracial groups on “Developing a Racial Justice Lens: Moving our Intentions into Effective Action.” Click here to see a video discussion of Racial Equity and Liberation.
And this relates to Community Wellness. The more we can recognize our distorted lenses and our prejudices, the more we can work to change them, and the better we can connect to our own and each person’s genuine humanity. Ultimately, our collective liberation is intertwined. As we can better address systemic inequities that exist in our organizations and societies, we can work to create a community where each person feels safe, included and treated fairly.
The following exercise demonstrates how society can weave a web of injustice through institutional policies and practices. Or, conversely, a web of justice. It can be used to illustrate a broad range of social inequities as described below, or to focus on just one type of inequity, such as racism. (I learned this activity from another workshop I attended, but its creator is unknown to me.)
Goal: To visualize how different institutions contribute to interconnected injustice
Time: 20 minutes
Number of participants: Approximately 8-24
Materials: Index cards, pens and a ball of yarn
Have participants stand in a circle. Hand each participant an index card. Ask each person to identify an institution in their community and write it on an index card. Have each person choose a different institution. (Or the facilitator can identify institutions that are relevant to a particular community beforehand) Have them think of employment, education, religion, banking, police and criminal justice system, health care, military, or favorite media. If there are more participants than cards, people can form teams of two or three for this step.
Hand the ball of yarn to one participant. Ask the first person to describe some type of inequity in their institution. It could be based on race, gender, religion, socio-economic class, (dis)ability, sexuality, age, citizenship or other social identity relevant to the community. Then have the person hold onto the loose end and throw the ball of yarn to someone else. The next person provides an example of an inequity in one of their institutions, and keeping hold of the yarn, tosses the ball to another person in the circle. Continue to throw the yarn until everyone has had at least one turn. In a small group, allow them two or three turns.
As people throw the ball of yarn back and forth, a web will form. To make it more challenging, people can identify how these inequalities are connected. For example, racism in access to good education is connected to the greater difficulty in finding jobs and the racial bias in employment. This illustrates the inter-connectedness among different forms of oppression and institutions and shows how people can get caught in this web. A physical way to do show is to ask just one person in the circle to raise and lower his or her piece of the yarn. The whole web quivers. Discuss how people can get caught in the web.
The activity can be done in reverse, by naming some social justice actions or policies that could be done or are being done to redress social inequities. In this way, your group makes a graphic illustration of a community’s wellness, or lack thereof.